Learning to read Thai

Learning to speak Thai has been really fun, not to mention useful. Both Mr and I can now find our way around a conversation, albeit with a few wrong turns. I was about to enrol on the next level of speaking Thai, but it’s super-low season and there weren’t enough students to open the course. So rather than miss a course, I opted to study reading and writing Thai instead.

Thai uses a completely different alphabet to English, and it’s phonetic. Each language school therefore has to develop a way to represent Thai letters in English so students can learn how to speak the language. I’ve been learning at the YMCA in Chiang Mai (as I’ve written about previously here) who teach speaking Thai separately to reading and writing Thai. As logical as that sounds (to me at least) some schools teach them simultaneously! So, just as I was getting the hang of speaking symbols, its all change… 

First off, we had to tackle the 44 consonants. Many of these letter are very similar with just a subtle difference here or there. Using a word for each letter the same way the English alphabet does – A is for apple – we had to memorise the letter, the sound and the word. This is made trickier by the fact there are multiple letters with the same sound, 4 t’s for example!

Next up we have to memorise the classes of consonants. 10 are high, 9 are middle and the rest are low. The reason the classes are needed, is because different class consonants have different tones when combined with vowels. Oh yes, in case you didn’t know, Thai is a tonal language, with 5 different tones. The same sound with a different tone could mean a totally different thing. And the tone rules are dictated by the consonant class and vowel type. 

As for the vowels, there are 32 and we’ve learned 26 so far. This itself is not too tricky, as many are literally a long and short version of the same sound. For example a is a much shorter sound than aa. Feeling confused? Welcome to my world! So, the tricky bit, for me at least, is the positioning of the vowels. Some go above the consonant, some go below. Some in front, some after. And of course there’s some that use a combination of the same symbols for other vowels, and a combination of positions. 

We each have a workbook full of Thai writing as well a practise writing book – you know the kind, they have dotted lines showing you how to write each letter! We’re only on level one, and only 7 lessons into a 15 lesson course! I have to practise everyday, otherwise it just doesn’t stick.

Our teacher says it’s good to try to use what we’ve learned. I spend a lot of time on the back of the moped, squinting at number plates and willing the letters to spring out of my mind. When they materialise I’m so happy that I shout them out. I can only imagine what the locals must think – hearing a distant voice shouting their moped number plate somewhere behind them (plates are only on the back of mopeds). And the other day we went to a local noodle shop, one without an English menu, so we just ordered noodle soup. But I did manage to read iced coffee from the black board. It may have taken me 2 minutes, but I’m actually pretty happy with my progress….